BMCR 2021.01.23

Seneca the Elder and his rediscovered Historiae ab initio bellorum civilium

, Seneca the Elder and his rediscovered 'Historiae ab initio bellorum civilium'. new perspectives on early-imperial Roman historiography. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. ix, 425. ISBN 9783110685855 $149.99.

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book, edited by Maria Chiara Scappaticcio, gathers the papers presented at the International Colloquium “Seneca Padre e la storiografia riemersa. Nuove prospettive di ricerca sulle Historiae ab initio bellorum civilium” held at the University of Naples Federico II on the 7th-8th of June 2018. The colloquium was organised by PLATINUM, an ERC project dealing with documentary and written texts in Latin on papyrus, supervised by Scappaticcio.

This volume comprises two complementary parts, each of which consists of seven contributions. Two introductions open the volume: the first by Maria Chiara Scappaticcio and the second by Timothy J. Cornell. Cornell considers Seneca the Elder’s historical production alongside the historical works of his contemporaries. Starting from the vexata quaestio of the precise meaning of unde primum veritas retro abiit that ‘remains a matter of conjecture’, he focuses on the relevance of historiography on civil wars in the early Principate.

Part I: Seneca the Elder’s Historiae ab initio bellorum civilium: Integrating New Discoveries with Old Knowledge strictly concerns the historiographical production of Seneca the Elder.

In the first contribution, Valeria Piano offers a new reading of the subscriptio of P.Herc. 1067. Following Marichal’s intuition, Piano identifies in the first two lines of the subscriptio, respectively, the name of Seneca the Elder and the title of his work, unlike previously suggested by Costabile, who alleged that P.Herc.1067 contained an oratio in Senatu habita ante principem composed by Lucius Manlius Torquatus.[1]

Tiziano Dorandi supports the reading of P.Herc. 1067 offered by Piano but he suggests that the title of Seneca the Elder’s Histories should be Ab initio bellorum civilium. Dorandi proposes a new date for the papyrus: P.Herc 1067, previously ascribed to the end of the first century B.C.,[2] should be dated in the period between the end of the reign of Tiberius and the early years of the reign of Caligula. The presence of this text in the library of the Villa dei Papiri may reflect not only the literary interests of the Pisones and their guests but also their political ideologies.

Maria Chiara Scappaticcio believes that the surviving fragmentary columns of text from the original roll of P.Herc. 1067 may be connected to the Principate of Tiberius – or the final period of the reign of Augustus. The new interpretation of this text, albeit in a highly fragmentary state, opens to new perspectives on Imperial historiography: in Scappaticcio’s view, the Historiae preserved by P.Herc. 1067 may be a model for Tacitus’ Annales, Suetonius’ De vita Caesarum, and Cassius Dio’s Historiae.

Starting with the misunderstanding generated by the coincidence in the tria nomina of Seneca the Elder and the Young, Giancarlo Mazzoli provides a deep analysis of the expression unde primum veritas retro abiit quoted by the fragment ascribed to Seneca’s De vita patris. By a cogent comparison with other texts (especially Lucan. 1. 171-182; Tac. Ann. 3. 27; Flor. Epit. 1. 47. 7-8), Mazzoli argues that the terminus a quo Seneca the Elder started his narration should be identified in the seditio Gracchana (133 B.C.) instead of in the civil war between Caesar and Pompey as other scholars claimed.[3]

By comparing several texts, including the preface to the first book of Seneca the Elder’s Controversiae, a declamation of Papirius Fabianus, a passage from Lucan’s Bellum civile, Florus’ Epitome with the fragment transmitted by Lactantius and ascribable to Seneca’s Historiae, Emanuele Berti argues that, following the model of Sallust, Seneca the Elder dwelled on the moral causes of the civil wars which are a direct outcome of the growing of luxus. The result is what Berti calls ‘rhetorical historiography’, a definition that perfectly conveys the mix between rhetoric and historiography, characteristic of the whole production of Seneca the Elder.

Mostly based on Gascou’s study,[4] Cynthia Damon detects Senecan material in Suetonius’ Life of Tiberius. By suggesting that the history of equestrian jury panels featured in Senecan Histories, she identifies them as a source for the reference to decuriae equitum in Suetonius (Tib. 41). Interestingly, Damon highlights that the Senecan description of Tiberius’ death (Suet. Tib. 73.2) – the less hostile to Caligula—would reveal sympathy towards Caligula, which could explain Seneca’s neglect from subsequent historians.

The next contribution is an unpublished work of Lewis Sussman. The article, written in the early 70s, is a remarkable attempt to reconstruct the content, the scope, the date, the sources of Seneca the Elder’s Historiae. Although most of Sussman’s points have been developed in the last decades, as Biagio Santorelli points out, his pioneering study deserved to be published.

The second part of the book, Seneca’s Historiae in Context: New perspectives on Early-Imperial Roman Historiographydeals with the relationship between Seneca’s Histories and the early imperial historiography.

Mostly focusing on Velleius Paterculus, Stephen Oakley also considers fragments of Lucius Arruntius, Pompeius Trogus, Fenestella, Cremutius Cordus, Bruttedius Niger, Aufidius Bassus by looking in each historian at the following aspects : (1) the use of poetic and archaic language; (2) the adoption of periodicity; (3) the adoption of the so-called pointed style; (4) the use of a specific prose-rhythm characteristic mostly of Cicero; (5) the influence of Sallust and Livy. By analyzing in detail Velleius’ style, echoed by the fragments of other historians, Oakley develops an extensive argument about the influence of Sallust and declamation in early imperial historiography.

Olivier Devillers considers Seneca the Elder’s Histories as a subsidiary source for Tacitus’ Annales 1-6. After discussing the possibility of considering Aufidius Bassus or Servilius as the fil rouge between Tacitus and Dio Cassius, Devillers analyses several passages from the Annales, which may contain traces of Seneca’s Histories. Particularly convincing is the intertextuality found in Tac. Ann. 6.51, where, alongside the established influence of Sallust (Hist. 1.12), Devillers suggests echoes from Seneca’s Histories.

In De Vivo’s attractive suggestion, Seneca the Elder may have influenced Tacitus, who collocates the Wendepunkt of Tiberius’ reign in 23 AD after the death of Drusus (Ann. 4.6.1), instead of in 19 AD after the death of Germanicus, as reported by Cassius Dio (57.19.1; 7-8; 7.1; 13.6) and Suetonius (Cal. 6.3; Tib. 39.1).

Antonio Pistellato writes on the elaboration of a ‘canon’ of Roman tyrants in imperial Rome, by proceeding à rebours: starting from Flavius Josephus, he considerers all sources in the first century CE until Cicero, when the collapse of the Republic became irreversible and a canon of tyrants emerged. In that matter – according to Pistellato – Seneca the Elder plays a notable role and the fact that P.Herc. 1067 was in the library of the Pisones, a family that undoubtedly played a considerable role in the opposition to the tyrannical power embodied by the princeps, may not be a mere coincidence.

Chiara Torre examines the figure of Papirius Fabianus in the production of Seneca the Elder and his most illustrious son. By comparing the preface to the second book of the Controversiae with letter 100 in which Seneca converses with Lucilius about Fabianus’ style, Torre proposes to read this letter as ‘literary memoir’ and demonstrates how Seneca’s depiction of Fabianus allusively hints at his father’s account.

Chiara Renda proposes a rigorous comparison between Seneca the Elder and Florus, who both feature a division of the history of Rome by aetates. The fragment reported by Lactantius ascribed to Seneca the Elder’s Histories has many points of contact with Florus’ historical work. Nevertheless, Florus diverges from his model when he deals with the transition from Republic to Principate and the advent of Augustus, which represents the apogee of Roman history.

A similar perspective is taken by John Rich, who investigates the possibility of considering Seneca the Elder as a source for Florus, Appian and Cassius Dio. Although Seneca’s Historiae could be Florus’ source for the distinction by aetates, Rich rejects the idea that his work could be the model for the structural features shared by Florus and Appian; instead, Seneca’s Historiae could have been among Dio’s sources.

This summary of the book’s contents cannot do justice to the complexity of the contributors’ arguments, but it helps to give idea of the richness of the volume, whose contents put in dialogue different authors with a plurality of perspectives. The index of passages by Mariafrancesca Cozzolino is certainly precious to recognise these connections among some contributions. At the end of the volume, an Appendix reports testimonia and fragmenta of the historiographical work of Seneca the Elder. Perhaps an epilogue advocating future research could have been added by proposing other avenues.

To sum up, the volume is valuable not only because it celebrates a remarkable discovery, namely the identification of P.Herc. 1067 as part of Seneca the Elder’s Historiae, but also because it offers a broader view on early-imperial Roman historiography. Although some of the points in dispute seem to me incapable of definitive resolution—such as the debate on the actual beginning of the Histories – the conflicting views arising from divergent angles stimulate the discussion around a text – or rather fragments of the text – which would deserve further investigation. Undoubtedly, this volume will remain a milestone in the scholarship on Seneca the Elder’s Historiae and it is recommended to anyone with an interest in early-imperial Roman historiography more generally.

Authors and Titles

Maria Chiara Scappaticcio, When tiny scraps cause new chapters of Latin literature to be written
Timothy J. Cornell, Roman Historical writing in the age of the Elder Seneca

PART I: Seneca the Elder’s Historiae ab initio bellorum civilium: Integrating New Discoveries with Old Knowledge
Valeria Piano, A ‘historic(al)’ find from the library of Herculaneum: Seneca the Elder and the Historiae ab initio bellorum civilium in P.Herc. 1067
Tiziano Dorandi, Un libro dell’ Ab initio bellorum civilium di Seneca il vecchio e il fondo latino della biblioteca della Villa dei Papiri a Ercolano
Maria Chiara Scappaticcio, Historiae ab initio bellorum civilium: Exegetical Surveys on the Direct Transmission of Seneca the Elder’s Historiographical Work
Giancarlo Mazzoli, Unde primum veritas retro abiit. Riflessioni sull’inizio delle Historiae di Seneca Padre
Emanuele Berti, Semina belli. Seneca il Vecchio e le cause delle guerre civili
Cynthia Damon, Looking for Seneca’s Historiae in Suetonius’ Life of Tiberius
Lewis A. Sussman, The lost Histories of the Elder Seneca (1972)
Biagio Santorelli, Bibliographical updates to Sussman’s “The lost Histories of the Elder Seneca” (1972-2019)

PART II: Seneca’s Historiae in Context: New Perspectives on Early-Imperial Roman Historiography
Stephen P. Oakley, Point and periodicity: the style of Velleius Paterculus and other Latin historians writing in the early Principate
Olivier Devillers, La place de Sénèque le Père parmi les sources possibles des Annales 1-6
Arturo De Vivo, Seneca Padre, Tacito e Germanico
Antonio Pistellato, Seneca Padre e il ‘canone dei tiranni’ romani: una questione di famiglia?
Chiara Torre, Seneca vs Seneca: generazioni e stili a confronto tra oratoria, filosofia e storiografia
Chiara Renda, Di aetas in aetas: considerazioni sulla storiografia di Seneca Padre e Floro
John W. Rich, Appian, Cassius Dio and Seneca the Elder


[1] F. Costabile, Opere di oratoria politica e giudiziaria nella biblioteca della Villa dei Papiri: i PHerc. latini 1067 e 1475, in: Atti del XVII Congresso internazionale di Papirologia II, Naples 1984, 591-606. For the editio princeps of the text cf. V. Piano, Il PHerc. 1067 latino: il rotolo, il testo, l’autore, CErc 47, 2017,163-250.

[2] P. Radiciotti, Ercolano: papiri latini in una biblioteca greca, SEP 6, 2009, 103-114.

[3] L. Castiglioni, Lattanzio e le storie di Seneca padre, RFIC 56, 1928, 454-475; M. Lausberg, Senecae operum fragmenta. Überblick und Forschungsbericht, ANRW II 36.3, 1989, 1879-1961; D. Vottero, Lucio Anneo Seneca. I frammenti, Bologna 1998; Rich in this volume. On the same line of Mazzoli are L.A. Sussman, The Elder Seneca, Leiden, 1978; L. Canfora, Seneca e le guerre civili, in P. Parroni (ed.), Seneca e il suo tempo. Atti del convegno internazionale di Roma-Cassino, 11-14 novembre 1998, Roma 2000, 161-177.

[4] J. Gascou, Suétone historien, Paris 1984.